Let us play
What to call Jacques Rivette's 1971 work? He named it 'Out' because the word 'in' was so fashionable (the 'in thing' to do) added a '1' because "(t)he action of the film is rather like a serial which could continue through several episodes."
But Rivette is also all about accident and chance (throughout his career but particularly in this production), and (so the story goes) scribbled on the cans of an early work print were the words 'touch me not' in Latin. What could be more eloquently descriptive of this monstrous long mix of fantasy and realism filled with characters so sensitive (so perceptive so susceptible to suffering) they both resist and seek out contact? What more appropriate plea than that the film is a special case that must not be shortened or simplified?
What's in it? A series of scenes where Rivette gathers his actors (or actor) tells them who they are and what must basically be said and/or done to further the plot (such as it is) then cuts them loose. And they fly or stumble (as the director put it) "without text or rehearsal" bringing something new to the scene the film the world.
On and on and on for some twelve-and-a-half hours.
First image: group of actors with asses in the air heads planted ostrichlike in the ground--Lili (Michele Moretti) and her crew doing yoga (the Plow Pose) before starting rehearsals for Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes. A second Aeschylus group hoping to mount the better-known Prometheus Bound has Thomas (Michael Lonsdale) and his folks begin with mirroring exercises (from--as Rivette points out--Jerzy Grotowski or Peter Brook or The Living Theater (channeling the Marx Brothers?)) moving on to more elaborate exercises before holding discussions on what did or did not work. Lili's actors seem focused on developing voice and body (dancing, singing), Thomas' on the mind (perceptions, impulses, emotions); after a while you begin to suspect that both groups have no real intent to stage a performance, their exercises wandering away from the source text into endless pointless (but not uninteresting) experimentation.
Weaving in and out (sometimes running parallel with) the two narratives: Colin (Jean-Pierre Leaud) a deaf-mute begging alms from cafe customers, prodding them with sharp bursts of harmonica when they hesitate, and Frederique (Juliet Berto) a street hustler who flirts and fleeces for cash. Call them soloists or (as I prefer to think of them) the show's pair of high-wire acts: Leaud's Colin is a literary romantic who with minimum prompting (three mysterious notes handed to him referencing Balzac and Lewis Carroll) conjures a vast conspiracy involving the Thirteen, complete with elaborate ciphers sinister agents a network of tendrils penetrating the length and breadth of Paris. Berto's Frederique is more street; where Colin has a consistent schtick (deaf mute with harmonica) Frederique improvises on the fly, often using her gamine good looks and apparent guilelessness to manipulate the unwary mostly male mark. She catches wind of the Thirteen too, though where Colin wishes to learn more and possibly make contact, Frederique tries blackmailing them for cash (she approaches Lucie (Francoise Fabian) the group's putative legal representative with less than happy results, the gamine easily outwitted (outdressed outclassed) by the seasoned professional*).
*(Colin doesn't fare much better; asking the Thirteen's resident intellectual Warok (Jean Bouise) about the three messages the latter suggests it's a practical joke.)
Which all sounds forbiddingly arcane but the key term used by Rivette to describe his filmmaking process (and presumably the recommended mode of viewing) is 'play:' we're watching two groups staging plays--or play with the notion of staging plays--two individuals play various roles (the codebreaker, the journalist, the lover; the hustler, the extortionist, the masked avenger), a thirteen-hour film play with our expectations of conventional narrative.
Lovemaking is also a kind of play. Colin in his wandering meets Pauline (Bulle Ogier) whose real name is Emilie who happens to be Lili's close friend (playacting much?). He falls for her earnestly ardently but she holds him firmly at arm's length, eventually running away (not playful enough!); later she realizes she misses that earnestness that ardor (by then of course too late). Frederique enjoys a brief romantic interlude with Renaud (Alain Libolt) who is her gay best friend Honeymoon's from-a-distance crush; Honeymoon in turn is played by Michel Berto, Juliet Berto's real-life husband, an obscure in-joke not perhaps essential to understanding the narrative but helps sharpen the appetite for intricacies within intricacies. Thomas with his stoop and graceless gestures seems like an unlikely Lothario and yet finds himself lounging not with one but two of his actresses; watching him with them you get some idea of his appeal. He's sophisticated and loquacious--endlessly playful--and given half a chance will worship a woman like a goddess, plying her with caresses and little kisses (aided with a little wine).
But play is insignificant without the weight of suffering entropy time (skip the next four paragraphs if you haven't seen the film/miniseries!). Lili's people suddenly have the chance to realize their dreams when one of their actors Quentin (Pierre Baillot) wins a million-franc lottery and as suddenly the chance is taken away. The loss stuns them; they devote themselves to finding their betrayer. The shift in focus revives the group for a while but the effort eventually falls apart the players scatter; we're left with watching Quentin attempt to apply the same technique he used on the lottery to find the thief (crunching numbers, measuring distances, studying points on a map). Thomas' people don't suffer as dramatic an end: two members quit the group fades and Thomas--who has shown himself despite his physical limitations to be quite the charming manipulator--is left sobbing hysterically on a beach (Turns around and pretends it's yet another improvisation but who is he fooling? Who is left a fool?). Frederique's end is perhaps the most fulfilling: she dies playing yet another romantic role, complete with mask and pistol and the fakest-looking blood I've ever seen (Raspberry syrup?); Colin is left with arguably the worst fate, perfectly contained and whole and alone in his cocoon of denial.**
**(The premise may be from Balzac but its development and resolution seems more Lewis Carroll. Colin's mysterious messages mention a Snark; Carroll warned that if the Snark were a Boojum (also mentioned) the seeker will vanish forever--see the two theater groups, the courier, Frederique, and Colin's resolve to uncover the Thirteen)
Not once is the May 1968 student revolt in Paris mentioned but its spirit haunts the narrative, mostly thanks to the Thirteen; turns out they're a loosely formed group who agreed to stay dormant some two years back (the chronology almost checks out--a title card states 'April, 1970' or some twenty-four months after the revolt started). Are they powerful? Not really, though Lucie seems capable of bending newspapers and the media to her will. Are they dangerous? At one point Lili and Emilie declare their intention to kill a courier--who is certainly knocked to the ground but is he really dead? Will someone come pick the 'body' up as promised? Or is this just another joke being played out?
The members that we know of--Lili, Emilie, Sarah, Warok, Lucie, Thomas, plus a few others--look crafty passionate objective impulsive thoughtful impatient fanatic skeptical, not so very different from Colin or Frederique or you or me. They're like everyone else save for being part of something bigger than themselves--but not that much bigger. They seem perfectly capable of staging something like May '68 and are just as capable (as with most all noble endeavors) of eventually fucking it up. In perhaps the narrative's central moment (if it can at all be accused of having a center) Lucie has a heated exchange with Warok: "You're all dreamers, not capable of doing anything," Lucie accuses Warok, the others, herself. "We all sit there and nothing changes!" But even her pessimism turns ambivalent as Warok shrewdly replies: "You're just contradicting me to find out exactly what I think of it all." Lucie laughs; they know each other too well. And with that observation Lucie murmurs almost to herself, almost with a sense of wonderment: "We could do something."
Out 1: Noli Me Tangere is a boundless bottomless game one plays with the characters the filmmaker oneself. Is it a great film? Is it at least great fun? Both, I think. You may disagree may even bail out somewhere along its 773 minute running time--but then you run the risk of a nagging insistent voice in your head telling you that perhaps you failed to properly play Rivette's game; that perhaps you weren't good enough to endure the running time ponder the mysteries pick the twists and loops out of the knotty narrative; that perhaps you didn't deserve to win.